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India's Blackout Fix Leaves 400 Million Without Power

India Without Electricity
A country village between Varanasi and Kolkata, India, which is home to millions of small farmers and their families. Photographer: Ulrike Maier

By Tom Randall

Blackouts in India this week left more than 640 million people without power. Even after the grid was restored, more than 400 million people in India still don’t have access to the energy they need for modern life.

They never had it in the first place.

India has the highest number of people without access to electricity in the world, according to the International Energy Agency. Low average wages in India combine with costly energy prices to create widespread energy poverty, where quality of life is hampered by limited access to electricity and clean fuels.

India's worst-ever power crisis -- and most likely the worst-ever outage in the history of human-generated electricity -- is the legacy of 60 years of missed investment targets. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is seeking $400 billion in energy infrastructure investments over the next five years, but fixing the nation’s electricity supply will take decades.

The people of India are accustomed to power outages. On an average day, there's a 9 percent shortfall in meeting the country's peak power demand. The government says this deficit shaves about 1.2 percentage points off annual economic growth.

The lack of reliable power has spawned a wide-ranging shadow grid for backup power. It ranges from crude personal generators to self-contained microgrids powered by wind, sun and diesel that keep the power on for multinational corporations. This inefficient patchwork of electricity may help relieve the shock of the world's biggest blackout. It doesn't end the burden of lasting energy poverty.

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-0- Aug/01/2012 19:33 GMT

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